Videogames are expensive. If you’re wondering whether or not to buy Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, the Internet is full of competent gamers and game-reviewers who will be more than happy to give you a detailed and intelligent analysis of the game. I, conversely, am an idiot. In my clumsy hands, Leon Kennedy is a coward, the Dragonborn is a con man and agent 47 is more like Mr. Bean. I suck at games. So here’s the review.
Shadow of Mordor is an open world game set sometime between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. You play two characters who have been sort of smudged together. One is a man called Talion (looks like an Aragorn, talks like a Boromir) and the other is an elf called Celebrimbor (looks like Casper), they are both dead… ish.
After a tutorial that involves sneaking up on your wife and tapping the square button to kiss her (the same button you use to chop up badguys) you are horribly murdered by Sauron’s bros. In case you’ve forgotten, Sauron is that big, fiery eye from the Lord of the Rings movies. After being murdered, Talion meets Celebrimbor, and discovers that he is not allowed to actually die. Bummer. Anyway, these grumpy kindred spirits team up, buddy cop style, to avenge the fridging of Talion’s family (by way of ritual sacrifice). This basically means fighting all of Mordor, with the hope of eventually getting a stab at Sauron’s black captains, who all have pretentious names like “The Tower” and “The Hammer”. Fucking posers.The ultimate goal is, of course, death. Both Talion and Celebrimbor want to rest in peace, but no matter how many times they are cut down, they wake up, Groundhog Day style, to continue fighting all of Mordor. However, as fleeting as death is, there are some rather interesting consequences. You see, the native Orcs (y’know, those filthy, industrial working class Londoners from the Lord of the Rings) have their own society, complete with hierarchies, power struggles, back-stabbings, initiations, feasts, vendettas and so on. Every time you die, not only does the Orc who killed you get fucking promoted, all the other captains and warchiefs get bonuses, and then squabble amongst themselves, often usurping leadership by way of a good stabbing.
Luckily you can take advantage of all this, intercepting duals, assassinating targets, spreading fear, gaining intel on your enemies’ strength and weaknesses. You can even brainwash Orcs to become sleeper agents, carefully ensuring their rise through the Orc ranks, until they’re in the perfect position to backstab a troublesome warchief.
When you’re not playing Orc politics, you’re running, jumping and climbing around an expansive and surprisingly varied open world (two open worlds in fact), full of huge numbers of Orcs (each one looks a little different, which is nice) and beasties, like the “Caragor”, tiger/armadillo/monster/things you can ride around on, or set loose on Orcs. Stay in the shadows and pick off the Orcs one-by-one with stealth attacks or go charging in, like a dick-swinging demi-god of death, chaining combos to earn brutal executions. As someone who sucks at games, the combat was a huge challenge, especially at first, but I can now competently hack and slash my way through forty or so Orcs. The game does a good job of making you feel very heroic, at least before one of those spear-wielding fellas inevitably skewers you like a hairy kebab.
Death is always personal. If an Orc “kills” you he gets a chance to climb the ranks, increasing his strength and influence. You’ll undoubtedly run into him again, either on a mission, or just randomly, and he’ll gloat about the time he took you down. Of course, it works both ways. If you “kill” an Orc captain (the only way to be sure is with a decapitation), or force him to retreat, he’ll remember you, and he’ll have a chip on his shoulder.
Each of these Orcs has a randomly generated name, appearance and title, plus individual fighting styles, strengths and weaknesses, and relationships with other Orcs. This is referred to as the “Nemesis system”. Any Orc can be a nemesis, but for me none of them came close to Skoth the Mountain, a big, meatheaded Uruk who hounded me with the fevered obsession of a lovesick teenager.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve cut the wretch down, but apparently the earth won’t take him, because he kept showing up at inopportune moments, his body ever so slightly more brutalised, his face the texture of an old cutting board. He is the Orc equivalent of Monty Python’s Black Knight, jumping out of a bush dramatically while I’m in the middle of a mission, and going down like a sack of shit after a couple of lazy sword swipes. The last time we actually fought he was engulfed in fire from an explosive barrel (yes even in Middle-earth there are explosive barrels). And yet a few missions later I bumped into him again, this time quite accidently. He was wearing a bag over his head, and his usual taunts and boasts were replaced with a guttural scream of pain, confusion and anger.
“Ranger!” he screeched, his eyes gleaming with the possibility of retribution, before a Caragor appeared and dragged him away.
As these Orc characteristics are randomly generated, it’s likely you’ll have a different experience. You’ll have your own nemeses, your own Skoths. It’s a great feature that adds depth and weight to the overall experience, building relationships between you and the Orcs and making general combat feel personal, something no other game has really managed to do. I still keep a weary eye out for Skoth, half expecting to turn around and catch a glimpse of his bulky silhouette, far away in the hills, hobbling after me on crutches.